Countdown to Wembley: proud of the noblest of striped shirts

Campo Retro's prize
Campo Retro’s prize

Guess the League Cup final score – and win a shirt like this:

Here’s one I made earlier. My little gig at ESPN means that I am writing for a global audience. Many Americans read me because of Jozy Altidore – and get very protective of him – and South Koreans because of Ki. Remember this whenever you wonder why I treat Sunderland as ‘they’ not ‘we’. It’s called house style and I fall in line. All the same, I wrote this piece from the heart and wanted to share it with an audience that means rather more …

In 1973, as every schoolboy
and these days a good many schoolgirls ought to know, Sunderland defied great odds to win the FA Cup as a club from a division one below the top flight, confronting then-mighty Leeds United.

It is remembered throughout football as one of the competition’s most romantic moments, bequeathing unforgettable images of Ian Porterfield’s winner, Jimmy Montgomery’s saves and trilby-clad manager Bob Stokoe’s race across the Wembley pitch at the end to embrace his keeper.

Two of that trio, sadly, are no longer with us; Monty, without much doubt, will be there again when his hometown club take on Manchester City in the Capital One Cup final on Sunday.

The cup win of May 5 1973 has been commemorated in various ways: on film, in books and in countless newspaper and magazine articles. The cup-winning squad returned to Sunderland in May last year for a dinner to mark the 40th anniversary. The club’s ticket office phone number ends with 1973. And until a few years ago, the London and South East branch of the Sunderland supporters’ association used the date of that momentous achievement — 5573 (yes, it works the United States way round, too) — as the title of its magazine.

Then the branch was asked to vote on whether to keep it. Younger members, in all likelihood born or brought up by parents detached from Sunderland or County Durham roots, could not identify with such a distant date. Older ones disliked being reminded of how long ago it was their team won anything other than promotion.

So the magazine became, by popular demand, Wear Down South, a neat enough pun to placate those of us reactionary enough to want to cling to past glory.

You know where this is leading. I am willing to campaign for yet another change of title — to 2314, which I am afraid does not work for Americans — in the event that Sunderland once again make a mockery of common sense and beat mega-rich, mega-ambitious City to win the league cup on March 2 2014.

You will also know — if you fancy yourselves as astute judges of the game — that the chances of that happening are not great. Logically, City have the composure, firepower and depth of squad to make it little more than another day at the office.

It may surprise no one to hear that this Sunderland supporter, and probably most others making the pilgrimage to Wembley on Sunday, will be there for the occasion more than in honest expectation. They will of course hope for the best while fearing the worst. But they know their team starts as lowly underdogs.

They are used to that role. The North East is a wonderful part of England but could not keep a straight face if it claimed to be a geographical magnet. Footballers — or perhaps their wives and girlfriends, as Roy Keane used to say when manager — do not wish to move there.

We are accused of having chips on the shoulder but the reality is that we don’t care: we dine out on those chips. It boosts the morale to be able to bleat about the iniquities of the North-South divide, to declare “never mind Scotland, set us free first”. And we don’t have to be casualties of the decline of traditional industry to feel that way.

I have lived away from the region of my childhood and youth for longer than I have not. I wasn’t even born there, but taken as an infant three months old. Since leaving, I have made my home in Bristol, London, France and Abu Dhabi. My life is wholly different from the one I had growing up, a world apart from what my parents knew. But I identify with what I think of as North-eastern values as fiercely now as when I was a low-paid clerk at the local railway works, a slaughterhouse and an engine factory.

My support for Sunderland does not depend on beating City, reaching the FA Cup final or staying up. I tried as hard to get to games when the team descended for the only time in history to the old third division as I do now in the Premier. I know upper mid-table is the very limit of sensible ambition, if even that is not stretching realistic hope. Nothing changes.

I will enjoy Sunday for the right reasons. Thanks to extraordinary luck, I have helped friends obtain tickets and wish I could have done the same for countless other good causes. I will hope for an honourable display from my team. I will join in the craic in London’s West End afterwards, celebrating more wildly than my age makes appropriate if it translates as an implausible victory. I will be briefly miserable if the result is a humiliation but, even then, will get over it and fete the achievement of having reached a final again.

And despite all the fun I have when I poke at football supporters who declare allegiance to teams based in places they’d struggle to find on a map, I will raise a glass to those I know, in other corners of the world, who have none of my attachment to the North East but feel drawn to Sunderland if only because Jozy Altidore or Ki Sung-Yueng or Fabio Borini currently wear the noblest of striped shirts.

M Salut by Matt
M Salut by Matt

2 thoughts on “Countdown to Wembley: proud of the noblest of striped shirts”

  1. I was there in 73 and it was fantastic. On way to Wembley I was getting a it worried about getting areal drubbing off Leeds, but an older supporter said something to me on the lines of that it was not just about winning,it was about doing our best…and if our best wasn’t good enough the so be it.

    Sunday is about how we perform and not all about the result. I am sure the lads will give City a real run for there money ..and if we do , and get the breaks who knows.we might just pull off a surprise.

    I hope those of you who are going enjoy it as much as we all did in 73.

  2. Well said , we’ll all be there, well the lucky ones anyway and we’ll be there for the run in, FA cup and then again next season , regardless of the division . We’ll celebrate the day and the fantastic run to get there on Sunday and try not to get to upset for to long if our wait for a cup goes on . If we win ? Heaven knows how we’ll react , I was to young in 73 to appreciate or undersrand it but I remember the day and the open top bus parade a few days later. These events are some of my first memories of life and so young was I ,that I thought it must be like Christmas or your birthday and it would come round every year ,ha ! Well we must have all been very naughty boys and girls because here we are 40+ years later still waiting! But as Colin says, it’s not about trophys , league positions, its about our team and that is a deep , lifelong commitment that we can’t really explain . Most of the best things are.

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